Sir George Clausen, RA RSW RWS HRBA RI ROI NEAC (1852-1944)
George Clausen absorbed a range of Continental influences to become a significant plein-air artist of scenes of rural life in oil, watercolour and pastel. The striking, sometime stark naturalism that he learned from Bastien-Lepage and Millet gave way to a light-filled, atmospheric Impressionism. While promoting new developments in painting as a leading member of the New English Art Club, he was eventually accepted by more established societies of artists, including the Royal Academy, becoming a notable Professor of Painting at the Royal Academy Schools. In addition to his distinctive landscapes – both with and without figures – he essayed portraits, nudes, interiors and still life compositions, and produced occasional, but significant murals, one of which was recognised with a knighthood. George Clausen was born at 8 William Street, Regent’s Park, London, on 18 April 1852, the second of five children of the Danish decorative painter, Jurgen (George) Johnson Clausen, and his wife, Elizabeth (née Fillan).
On leaving St Mark’s School, King’s Road, Chelsea, in 1867, Clausen became an apprentice in the drawing office of Messrs 176 Trollope & Sons, a leading firm of decorators. While there, he also took drawing lessons with John Leghorn, which prepared him for a course of evening classes, on a two-year scholarship, at the National Art Training School, South Kensington.
During his time there, he won two of its gold medals for design (in 1868 and 1870). By 1871, he had moved with his family to 9 Stafford Terrace, Fulham Road.
As the result of a commission to decorate the house of the history painter, Edwin Long, Clausen became the artist’s researcher, and received assistance from him in his development as an artist. Taking Long’s advice, Clausen visited Belgium and Holland during the years 1875-76. He studied briefly at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp under Joseph Van Lerius and, absorbing the influence of painters of the Hague School, began to take an interest in working en plein air. The results included High Mass at a Fishing Village on the Zuider Zee (Nottingham Castle Museum), which he showed successfully as his first exhibit at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1876. In the same year, he was elected an associate of the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours (becoming a full member in 1879).
Believing that he could learn more from a formal art education, Clausen went to Paris in 1876, in the hope of entering the atelier of Jean-Léon Gérôme, but found it closed. He then considered working under Carolus-Duran, only to be shocked by ‘sloppy paint and bitumen all over the place’, and so returned to London. There he learned not only from the successful genre works of William Quiller Orchardson, Marcus Stone and James Tissot, but also from the experiments of James McNeill Whistler. By the end of the 1870s, he and his family were living at 4 The Mall, Park Road, Haverstock Hill, and he was establishing himself in his own studio.
In 1881, Clausen married fellow artist, Agnes Webster, in Kings Lynn, and they settled first in the village of Childwick Green, near St Albans, Hertfordshire, moving to Grove House, Fag End Road, Cookham Dean, Berkshire, in 1885. They would have three sons and two daughters; Margaret would marry the artist, Thomas Derrick, while Katharine would herself become an artist.
Clausen’s move to the country marked his increasing focus on rural themes, interpreted through a broad technique that involved the use of square-headed brushes. He was influenced in this approach by developments in France, which he visited on painting trips, including that to Brittany in 1882, and for further study, spending a term at the Académie Julian under Bouguereau and Robert-Fleury in 1883 (the year that he was elected to the new Institute of Painters in Oil Colours). He was especially inspired by the example of Jules Bastien-Lepage, whose work he had first seen at the Grosvenor Gallery, and would do much to promote him in England, as exemplified by the article, ‘Bastien-Lepage and Modern Realism’, published in The Scottish Art Review in 1888. He also had his own French success, when he was awarded a silver medal at the Exposition universelle, in Paris, in 1889.
In 1884, critics had attacked the harsh realism of Clausen’s painting, Labourers after Dinner (private collection), when it was shown at the Royal Academy. This encouraged him to help found the New English Art Club in 1886, and he – like his friend and fellow member, Henry La Thangue – would remain a keen advocate of the reform of the Royal Academy after he returned to exhibiting there regularly in 1891. In that year, he and his family moved to Bishops Farm House, Widdington, near Newport, Essex, and many of the local farmyards, barns and fields would feature his work.
Attracted to a range of modern painting, Clausen tempered his monumental depictions of the agricultural labourer, influenced by Jean-François Millet, with an increasingly bright palette, derived from the Impressionists, and an atmospheric use of pastel, inspired by Edgar Degas. However, he strengthened his association with more established institutions, and was elected to the Royal Society of Painters in Water-Colours (ARWS 1889; RWS 1898) and the Royal Academy (ARA 1895; RA 1908). His standing at home was confirmed by a series of solo shows – the first of which was held at the Goupil Gallery, London, in 1902 – while his wider reputation was consolidated through the award of medals at a number of international exhibitions, notably those in Chicago (1893), Brussels (1897) and Paris (1900). He also visited Hungary in 1894 and Italy in both 1898 and 1903.
Having taught at the Royal Academy Schools since the mid 1890s, Clausen became its Professor of Painting during the years 1903-6 (and would become temporary Director and Master of the Painting School in 1926-27). This academic position gave him the opportunity to urge the traditional study of the Old Masters in lectures that were published as Six Lectures on Painting (1904) and Aims and Ideals in Art (1906). From 1905, he maintained a London home and studio at 61 Carlton Hill, St John’s Wood. In 1909, he was master of the Art Workers’ Guild.
Clausen’s own work, exhibited in solo shows at the Leicester Galleries (1909 and 1912), demonstrated how tradition and innovation could complement each other, and it seemed no contradiction for an exponent of Impressionism to undertake public commissions. He was an original member of the Faculty of Painting for the British School at Rome (1912), an official war artist during the First World War (assigned to Woolwich Arsenal) and later a mural decorator of, especially, St Stephen’s Hall, Westminster (1927). The last of those projects led to his being knighted (1927) in a period in which he continued to be elected to exhibiting societies. He became an honorary member of the Royal Society of British Artists (1923) and a member of the Royal Scottish Society of Painters in Water-Colours (1926). Retrospectives of his work were held at Barbizon House in 1928 and 1933. In these later years, he painted numerous landscapes around the Essex village of Duton Hill, where, from 1917, he maintained ‘Hillside’ cottage. Following the outbreak of the Second World War, he and Lady Clausen left their London home to live with their daughter, Margaret, and her husband, Thomas Derrick, at St Finians Farm, Cold Ash, Thatcham near Newbury, Berkshire. He died there on 22 November 1944, eight months after his wife.
His work is represented in the collections of the Royal Academy of Arts and numerous public collections, including the British Museum, Tate and the V&A; Birmingham Museums Trust, Bristol Museum & Art Gallery, Holburne Museum (Bath), Laing Art Gallery (Newcastle upon Tyne), Leeds Museums and Galleries (including both Leeds Art Gallery and Lotherton Hall), Manchester Art Gallery, the Usher Gallery (Lincoln) and the Walker Art Gallery (Liverpool); and National Museum Wales (Cardiff).
Further reading: Kenneth McConkey, ‘Clausen, Sir George (1852-1944)’, H C G Matthew and Brian Harrison (eds), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2007, https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/32435; Kenneth McConkey, ‘Clausen, Sir George (b London, April 18, 1852; d Newbury, Berks, Nov 22, 1944)’, Grove Art Online, 2003, https://doi.org/10.1093/gao/9781884446054.article.T018054; Kenneth McConkey, George Clausen and the picture of English rural life, Edinburgh: Atelier Books, 2012; Kenneth McConkey (intro), Sir George Clausen, RA, 1852-1944, Bradford: City of Bradford Metropolitan District Council and Tyne and Wear County Council, 1980